China Watching

2019-09-25 Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi

China: A 70-year-long March

According to President Xi, the country is entering a new era, in which revolutionary values and culture will be reaffirmed - without the need for human rights

A military parade will mark the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. On October 1, in Tiananmen Square, the communist leadership will delight in showing the world the progress made since Mao Zedong declared the birth of the New China: from a poor agricultural society to a global economic power in less than a century. Those who were around when the People's Republic was founded cannot fail to remember the food-rationing cards, the hunger, and the crude political purges that reached their apex during the decade of the Cultural Revolution. And then the 1980s, when the economic reforms promoted by Deng Xiaoping transformed the nation's economy with the slogan “Let some people get rich first.”

In those years, a state employee earned perhaps 50 yuan a month, but those who started their own business could easily make it to 400. It was the period of experimentation on “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the period in which the promise of wealth canceled out the blood with which the protests in Tiananmen Square had been repressed, the period that transformed China into the world's factory as we have come to know it. It is in this context that the young generations who study and consume in today's China grew up, a dystopian mix of consumerism, new technologies, and mass surveillance. We can say that from the first of October 1949, each generation that has lived in China has seen a country that is completely different, better than the one their parents lived in; but now this is no longer true.

The country's forced growth has favored the explosion of contradictions. Today China finds itself facing the lowest growth of the last 27 years with a resulting crisis of confidence in the governing class. In the past seventy years the Communist Party has maintained its leadership through the promise of social and economic redemption. But today consumption is falling, the society is aging, the public debt is growing, and unemployment is rising. The trade war with the United States is also sorely taxing the global distribution chain on which its economy depends, especially in the sector on which it has concentrated the most: technology and artificial intelligence. Not to speak of the peripheries, which have always been the empire's Achilles' heel, that represent a challenge for a ruling class used to governing with the carrot and the stick.

In the majority Turkophone and Muslim western region of Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs (some estimates suggest the number could be as a high as 1.5 million) are disappearing into an opaque network of re-education camps. Hong Kong, the jewel of the “One country, two systems” policy, has seen demonstrations in the streets for over three months, in a final desperate attempt to reject Beijing's legal system. President Xi Jinping, who recently abolished the two-term limit for the presidency and vice presidency of the country, recognizes the exceptional challenges his nation will have to face, and he responds with the Maoist fist.

Less tolerance for dissent, public self-criticism, and a personality cult. Xi has always been convinced that the fall of the Soviet Union was due to the delegitimization carried out by the Soviet Communist Party of its own revolutionary past. “Since we are the largest political party in the world,” Xi wrote in a recent article in Qiushi, an important magazine tied to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, “there are no outside forces that can defeat us, we can only defeat ourselves from the inside.” Thus he recently resumed speaking of the “great struggle,” a term that had not been heard since the time of Mao, and he exhorted Party officials to transform themselves into “commanders and warriors” to “conquer the risks and challenges” that threaten sovereignty, security, and the national interest, that “will become increasingly complex.”

The point is that “the third cycle of thirty years” has begun, as defined by Chinese propaganda. The first cycle saw Mao Zedong take power and lead China to the end of the Cultural Revolution. In the second cycle, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, there was experimentation with the market. But since 2012, when Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Party, a “new era” began, that which bears his name. In this phase, the People's Republic must “have trust” in its own “system,” in its own “path,” in its “theory” and its “culture.”

The president is convinced that “the 21st century will see capitalism lose its appeal in favor of socialism, led by China,” and from his viewpoint Beijing's role in global governance is to offer a “Chinese solution” to the problems that are exploding in democracies. “If our people cannot uphold the moral values that have been formed and developed on our own soil, and instead indiscriminately and blindly parrot Western moral values, then it will be necessary to genuinely question whether we will lose our independent ethos as a country and a people,” he has stated on multiple occasions. And regarding those who accuse China of failing in the field of human rights: “China does not export revolution. China exports neither hunger nor poverty. We do not cause problems. What more can be said of us?”

(Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi is a Journalist. In 2011-2017 she lived in Bejing and she was the Managing Editor of China Files. She is currently based in Milan, where she works for the publishing group News3.0)